7 Steps to Setting Up a Document for Print in Adobe Illustrator
ie. Things I wish I had known going into the world of print design and setting up a document for print as a self taught graphic designer.
During my first internship, I was quickly abducted from the education department to the marketing one in order to be a graphic designer. The only problem? They wanted a brochure, and I barely knew how to use Adobe Photoshop, let alone Illustrator, and the idea of designing something that had to be sent to a printer was incredibly intimidating. This is your guide to what I learned on the job about setting up a document for print in Adobe Illustrator.
When I looked online for answers there weren’t a lot of specific tutorials on how to set up your file, what bleeds were, and just the real nitty gritty setting specifics. I learned by trial and error over the next 4 months through talking to printers and anyone who knew anything about the Adobe Suite.
This guide is intended as a beginner crash course for print design in Adobe Illustrator, and while it is nowhere near comprehensive, it is my hope that if you stumble across it in need of help, it will be able to make your life a little easier.
Rasterization (when something is rastered): pixel-based; when you zoom in, you will see individual pixels and it will be blurry
Vectors: scalable graphics – no matter how much you enlarge a file, the shape or graphic will remain crystal clear.
1. What program should I use?
There are three main Adobe programs that are used predominantly for graphic design.
Adobe Photoshop: This truly works best for image adjustments (usually defined as pixel editing). It is also good when using or creating fancy mockups of your work. While you can design posters and the like in it, the way that Photoshop rasterizes everything, and the way that it handles (pixelates) text won’t serve you well in anything that’s going to be professionally printed. If you’ve ever tried dealing with more than a couple lines of text in Photoshop you will understand.
A big reason why you can’t send your files to print via Adobe Photoshop is because the file type most printers prefer is a .EPS – we will discuss this more later, but “Photoshop EPS” is not the same as a regular “EPS”. Photoshop’s system of exporting EPS’s messes with layers and text rendering because it’s trying to force rastered content to be a vector, which is impossible. Some people might tell you it’s fine; they don’t know shit, use Illustrator. If you submit a Photoshop EPS to a printer, they /might/ be able to make it work, but they will hate you.
Adobe Illustrator: Creates everything in Vectors! Yay! Adobe Illustrator handles text like a champ, and can export to .EPS or .PDF in Industry-Standard formats. It also features something called a “Bleed” which we will mention later, which Photoshop lacks (scroll down to #3 to read about Bleeds)
Illustrator works great for “smaller” print documents, such as business cards, brochures, posters, event banners, vehicle wraps, etc.
Adobe Illustrator will become clunky as soon as you are trying to design a multi-page print document such as a 10-page pamphlet, book, or anything where it benefits your design to have reoccurring features such as page numbers, or anything that requires a Table of Contents.
Adobe InDesign: What I like to use InDesign for is multi-page documents, where you can set up a “master page” with headers, footers, page numbers, etc. and this will automatically replicate into however many pages are in your document. It has complex automatic systems for chapter headers, tables of contents, and references. I know some designers who design brochures, business cards, everything in InDesign and export as a print-ready PDF for printers, reserving Illustrator for logo work. This is A-Ok and boils down to workflow and personal preference.
2. Bleeds – what are they and why do I need them
Bleeds are basically extra area around your artboard that will be sliced off by the printer when the item has been printed out. It allows you to create full-color full-page images without any white trim around the outside (unless this is the look you are going for). When someone says a document has “Full bleeds” it means the artwork, photos, or graphics extend edge to edge.
A standard bleed is 0.125” which can be set up in the first settings of Adobe Illustrator when you’re creating a new document. If you forget or need to change or remove your bleed you can always do this later, but I recommend starting off with it.
An important thing to remember when designing for print is that in addition to the bleed, it is advisable to keep 0.125” of space inside of your artboard edges free of text or really important graphics. This is generally called the “Text-safe” outline, and is just to allow for printer-error when they are slicing off the bleed. Text-safe lines are not included in the bleed setting, and are up to you to remember to watch. The blue line in the following illustration is just an example that I added to my file. I usually use guides to make sure I am inside the theorthetical outline.
Note: These bleed reccommendations may change based on your project, but (so far!) I’ve never had any mistakes occur using a 0.125” bleed as a default. If you’re unsure what the settings should be for your current project, just send your printer a quick email!
3. Other Settings
There are some other settings you need to pay attention to when setting up your file for the first time – these will be your color profile and your PPI (points per inch). Your color profile will be CMYK, and your PPI must be 200ppi or higher. Higher is recommended although for most of what you will be doing in Illustrator 300ppi should suffice.
4. Black output
This is a quick one, but there are two different kinds of blacks in Illustrator. If you go into preferences -> Appearance of Black, you want all blacks to display accurately so you can know if you accidentally used “100K Black” (appears more of a dark grey) instead of “Rich Black”. I also personally have my settings to “Output all blacks as rich black” anyway, as a precaution.
5. Outling Text
If you have text in your print document, the very last step you will want to do before sending it to the printer, will be to save your file, and then create a copy of it and name it “Text Outlined” in some way. Open this copy and select your text (or just Command/CTRL + A to select everything) and go to Type -> Create Outlines.
This will make your text “permanent” as it transforms it into a shape vector and you will no longer be able to make live text changes to the copy. You can still change colors, size, outlines, move it around, etc, but the copy can’t be changed without re-typing everything. This is why I recommend creating a copy file, so if you do have to make last minute copy changes, you can go back to the first file, make the changes and repeat this issue. Outlining your text will make sure no accidental changes occur, and will make sure the text prints clearly and crisply.
The best files to send to printers are .EPS files. You can export by artboards to get everything exact. Another safe file format is an editable PDF. If you want to be friendly to your printers, you can include a lowres .JPG/PNG as a demo of what the design looks like just as an extra proof. Some printers will accept .AI files themselves, but usually it is best to provide a .EPS.
7. Printers are your Friends
This is a very important one! When I first started I thought I should have all this knowledge already, and I felt humiliated by the idea of asking printers for help because I thought they would think I was an idiot. But every printing company does things a little different and they are absolutely happy to answer any questions you have about how to set up your document best for them. It makes their life easier as well. Printing things is a collaborative effort, and it doesn’t make you a bad or uneducated designer to ask questions and be friendly with your printers. It helps build trust and repertoire as well!
I hope this guide was useful, if I missed anything please let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to amend this guide. If it helped, or you have any more questions about setting up documents for print / any graphic design related questions let me know!